Thousands ransack rural school in China's first SARS-related riot

They fear it will be used as ward for urban victims


CHAGUGANG, China - Believing that a school would be turned into a hospital for urban SARS patients, thousands of residents of this rural town ransacked the interior of the four-story building Sunday night.

Chagugang, an agricultural market town about 12 miles northwest of the port of Tianjin, was quiet yesterday morning, but the mood was taut a day after the first riot in China related to the deadly disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Scores of police officers and two buses of paramilitary troops in riot gear guarded the ravaged junior high school, which was suddenly closed last week to be rebuilt into a facility with 200 individual bedrooms. Hundreds more police officers lined the road through the town, preventing residents or visitors from approaching the scene of Sunday night's fracas.

Residents of the town and nearby villages were defiant and unapologetic yesterday, resenting what they regard as one more sign of the disdain that big-city officials have for rural people.

"We are people too!" snapped an old woman, who, like others interviewed, would not let her name be used. "This disease is exactly what everyone wants to avoid, and they want to throw it right at us."

The school attack suggests that social tensions are rising as fear of the virus spreads faster than the disease, although nearly 100 more cases were reported in Beijing yesterday.

More conflict appears possible as Chinese authorities - who are accustomed to operating in a high-handed manner with people, especially those in rural areas - start applying desperate, often strict measures to contain a disease that has abruptly been seeded around the country.

Defending "social stability" has been the first principle of national leaders, who were on edge about growing unemployment and economic inequality before the epidemic started. Now, they must also cope with new social and political stresses arising from the epidemic.

Beyond the devastating medical effects and the public fears, the epidemic is also dragging down the economy, which could fuel more discontent.

Several Chagugang residents said the Sunday night mob reached more than 10,000 people before it was dispersed by police about midnight. The number could not be verified.

Local officials declined to provide arrest figures, but a Chagugang township official acknowledged in a telephone interview that the violence had occurred and said, "Of course people will be punished if they engaged in smashing property and robbery."

The official said the school was being renovated not to house ill patients with confirmed or suspected SARS but as a quarantine center for people who had close contacts with SARS patients and for travelers returning from SARS hot spots.

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